Until my son joined the Sligo football panel this year I didn’t take much notice of what happened in the lower divisions of the Allianz Football League.
I think I had been at just one Division 3 or 4 league game. The yawning gap between the top teams and the so-called ‘weaker counties’ didn’t keep me awake at night.
But for the past six months I have been on a journey of discovery.
Now, I’m a better GAA person as a result of seeing teams like Sligo, Leitrim, Fermanagh, London and New York up close and personal.
I now have a better understanding of the challenges they face.
More importantly, I now fully appreciate the huge work going on to promote the GAA in these counties.
They, too, aspire to winning an All-Ireland and challenging the top sides like Dublin and Kerry.
Sadly, there is no silver bullet or magic formula which will close the gap between the top and bottom
This is why the Tailteann Cup is such a brilliant initiative.
It has already worked, because it features games between teams of, roughly, equal ability.
I watched all the inter-county football matches last weekend.
The best by a country mile was the Tailteann Cup encounter in Carrick-on-Shannon between Leitrim and Sligo.
Sure, there wasn’t the same number of quality players in action as there would be in a game between two Division 1 teams. There were mistakes and some bad misses.
Nonetheless, as a contest, it had everything: top-quality football, passion, a terrific atmosphere – aided by the fact that it was played in a compact stadium – and a nail-biting finish.
Unfortunately, it ended in a penalty shoot-out, which Sligo won 4-3.
It was an awful way to finish a game. I will continue to rail against using penalty shoot-outs to end GAA games.
Just imagine the atmosphere in Markievicz Park today if the game had gone to a replay. There would have been little else talked about in Sligo and Leitrim this week.
Apart from generating additional revenue, it would have raised the profile of the GAA in both counties. I thank the footballers of Leitrim and Sligo for restoring my faith in Gaelic football.
It is a great game, once it is played in the right spirit, once players have a positive attitude and meddling coaches don’t complicate it.
The other game I enjoyed last weekend was the all-Ulster Sam Maguire qualifier between Armagh and Tyrone. What a contrast from the fear-fest that was the Ulster final between Derry and Donegal.
One statistic sums up the difference between the games.
At the Athletic Grounds all the first-half scores came from turnovers, whereas in Clones only two points came from turnovers in the same period.
Armagh and Tyrone did set up defensively. But the fear factor which dominated the Derry-Donegal was thankfully missing.
At the end of it all the All-Ireland champions are gone for 2022 without having even reached the All-Ireland quarter-finals.
I have often written about how difficult it is to retain an All-Ireland title.
Replicating the intensity, commitment, hunger and sacrifices which secured the title in the first place is nearly impossible.
Which makes Dublin’s achievement of retaining Sam five times between 2016 and 2020 all the more special.
In their three championship games this summer – against Fermanagh, Derry and Armagh – Tyrone were unbelievably flat.
Though they had bodies back, we didn’t see the normal intensity, aggressive tackling, and all-round desire which we associate with Tyrone teams.
They looked a tired, even dispirited, bunch who were playing on memory. Losing seven panel members after winning an All-Ireland was unprecedented. Surely, it was all more than an unfortunate coincidence?
In one fell swoop, Tyrone lost one of their key weapons. Remember the impact their substitutes made in both the All-Ireland semi-final and final last year.
This season they didn’t have the option of bringing on the likes of Tiernan McCann, Ronan O’Neill or Mark Bradley.
Worse still, the departure of so many squad players meant competition for places was drastically reduced.
Granted they brought a number of their All-Ireland-winning U-20 team into the squad. But it smacked of a panicked, last-minute reaction.
One of the reasons why Dublin stayed at the top for so long was they had 30 players vying to be picked. Nobody became complacent.
One damning statistic was the failure of Tyrone’s forwards to make any impact.
Against Derry, only one forward – Darren McCurry – scored from play.
Last Sunday, McCurry and Conor McKenna – who between them hit 1-2 – were the only forwards to score from play. This is simply not good enough at this level.
Tyrone won a soft All-Ireland last year. This is not sour grapes on my part.
They codded Kerry and then beat a Mayo side which, not for the first time in their current cycle of All-Ireland final appearances, failed to reach their potential on final day.
The weekend’s other big losers were Monaghan.
I do have sympathy for them; they should have had a penalty in injury-time and Conor McManus’s black card was harsh.
Fair play to team manager ‘Banty’ McEnaney.
He played a blinder by focusing afterwards on the refereeing decisions rather than his team’s shortcomings.
It was a convenient distraction from what was another woeful, inept championship performance under his stewardship.
I’m like a stuck record when it comes to Monaghan footballers. They are great warriors but have become too one-dimensional and utterly predictable.
A major rebuild is about two years overdue, but how do you do that in one of Ireland’s least populated counties?
Of the 1-13 they conceded, 1-6 came from placed balls, which suggests a lack of discipline.
Worse still, despite having the breeze in the second half they failed to score for 22 minutes.
This in a nutshell sums up Monaghan. It was a similar story in last year’s Ulster final against Tyrone.
They have lost so many games because of their unwillingness to throw caution to the wind and actually try to win the match.
Meath were the other high-profile losers last weekend.
The same old problems surfaced again; there was no tempo, pace or urgency about their play until it was all too late.
For a county which produced warriors like Mick Lyons, Liam Harnan, and Colm Coyle this team’s lack of fight is puzzling.
I never figured out what Andy McEntee’s game plan was during his six-season reign as manager. They had an alarming habit of waking up when it was too late.
Last season they almost secured promotion with a late rally against Kildare; it was a similar story in the Leinster semi-final against Dublin.
This season they actually outscored Dublin in the second half, having conceded five goals in the first. And last weekend they had another first-half horror show against Clare.
Even though they had the wind, they didn’t score from play until the 18th minute.
In the wake of McEntee stepping down it is worth pointing out that he is not the first Meath manager to fail since the glory days.
The vitriolic criticism levelled at him and his son Shane on social media in the last week was absolutely scandalous.
The McEntee family has given decades of service to Meath GAA. Unlike many county managers, he did not take a penny from the Co Board.
Andy should not have been subjected to this kind of unwarranted personal criticism
My rant of the week concerns the qualifier match between Cork and Louth before a pitiful attendance in Páirc Uí Chaoimh.
Those who stayed away made the correct decision. Despite stiff competition, this was by far the worst match in the championship so far.
Derry and Donegal was awful to watch, but at least the defensive aspect of their game plans were well executed.
What Louth attempted was the equivalent of a bad Elvis Presley impersonation. I accept some of the reasons why Mickey Harte opted for an ultra-defensive set-up.
They were badly hit by injuries and, as the old saying goes, you have to cut your coat according to your cloth.
Granted the game was close but I imagine anybody watching had fallen asleep long before the end.
It’s not as if Cork are world beaters; the teams will play in the same division as Louth next year.
Louth were left to reflect on what might have been.
So thank God for the Tailteann Cup and for players like Leitrim’s Keith Beirne and Sligo’s Alan Reilly who are a breath of fresh air in the GAA world.